Throughout the book, Amis penetratingly relates the horrors of late middle age, less genteelly known as the beginning of the end. While his mother dies and his literary hero sits “becalmed in the doldrums of dementia,” Amis proceeds through “the Crap Decade” of his 50s. He’s heard rumors that your 60s can provide a cheerful new equilibrium, but before that can happen, his best friend, the journalist Christopher Hitchens, is discovered to have Stage 4 esophageal cancer. Behind him, the Amis brood fruitfully multiplies (five children, two grandchildren), but ahead lies a dark wood with ever fewer friends and elders to light the way through. Amis’s suicidal ideation doesn’t feel affected. If anything, Amis and suicide are well matched, comedically. At one point he demands to know why his 3-year-old daughter isn’t also contemplating suicide.
So many of the people who appear in “Inside Story” are pieces of work — delightful, difficult, confusing, exhausting. There’s Amis’s five-year paramour Phoebe Phelps, who instantly takes her place among his greatest gargoyles, somewhere, say, between the two Keiths, Whitehead and Talent, from “Dead Babies” and “London Fields.” Bellow was obviously a huge piece of work. Kingsley and Larkin were less pieces of work than sprawling construction sites of overturned cranes and sparkingly severed power lines. Amis, too, is a piece of work, in his way.
And then there’s Christopher Hitchens, a pièce de résistance — a masterpiece — of work: the socialist socialite who devoted his life to hard-left social justice, only to throw in with the hard-right mountebanks of the Bush administration; the man who infamously, idiotically declared women can’t be funny. We learn Hitchens never agreed with Amis’s literary fundamentalist position that writing “insists on freedom, absolute freedom, including freedom from all ideology.” Hitchens mocked religious belief yet could never quite unshackle himself from socialist belief, despite its similar tendencies toward intellectual constriction. But Amis and Hitchens loved and forgave each other, for this and all else.
Imagine these men, this friendship, developing in the age of Twitter. You can’t, because it’s impossible. I know when “Inside Story” appears, there will be cries — as there were when Hitchens died — of warmongering, racism, sexism and Islamophobia, targeting both Amis and Hitchens. (Amis’s twin masterpieces, “Money” and “London Fields,” could both be plausibly retitled “Trigger Warning.”) If you fancy yourself a friend of freedom, art and humanity, and find it within yourself to despise these men, congratulations. You wouldn’t recognize a true enemy of humanity unless he drove a spear through your solar plexus.
Amis describes Hitchens as a man who seemed to “covet the disapproval, even the ostracism, of his peers.” Throughout his life, Hitchens sought out these most difficult positions and defended them with the regal ferocity of a Hussar. But we learn from Amis that his friend was privately “tormented by the proliferating disaster of Iraq.” There’s a grim justice to this — Hitchens’s torment was, in this area, well deserved — but only the most hardened will read Amis’s account of his friend’s long, grueling death and find themselves unmoved.
Our author has accepted he is not a cultural cuddle bear. When he proposes writing a certain book, his wife (here called Elena) instantly shoots down the idea. Amis: “You’re thinking it’ll make everyone hate me.” Elena: “They hate you already.” I confess I don’t get this. Have never gotten this. Unlike Hitchens, Amis didn’t help start a war. The scandals surrounding him have always seemed peculiarly British, which is to say ridiculous. Yes, he’s said some foul, intemperate things, most notoriously about Muslims in the years after Sept. 11, and within “Inside Story” you’ll find his implicit apology. So what is it, exactly, that fuels the animadversion against Martin Amis?
“If it has energy,” he writes, “fictional prose will tend to be headstrong.” Could that be it? The opinionated, funny, headstrong prose — the headstrength? Amis has been called a bad boy for decades now, but so few who’ve written about him, whether in amity or discord, have bothered to notice the overriding imperative of his art: to be circumspect, to be generous, to be good-humored, to be kind. Good news: Amis is more open and transparent on these principles than ever before. “In the end,” he writes, “it’s not your Nobel Prize you’re thinking of, it’s not your three National Book Awards and all that. It’s your sins of the heart (real or imagined), it’s your wives, your children, and how things went with them.” And: “This is literature’s dewy little secret. Its energy is the energy of love.”